Courtesy of TSAFF

Danish Renzu:  Half Widow

My childhood in Kashmir was not close to normal. Frequent bombings, curfews, shutdowns and abuse of human rights in the valley kept us (me and my siblings) usually fearful. I have witnessed my close friends and acquaintances die in the unending political upheaval in Kashmir. I realized early in life that the true solution did not lie in people protesting or joining groups to fight the problem. Perhaps it lies in moving forward and investing our energies toward personal development, education and community growth. As a filmmaker, through my film, I am doing my part to contribute to these efforts by trying to bring to light a very sensitive and overlooked issue of Kashmir.

The label “half widow” highly disturbs me. It is a stigma. These women are not half; they are complete people with dreams and aspirations, and the right to live their lives just like anyone else. They have the right to know what happened to their husbands so they can try to move on with their lives. Yet these half widows remain stuck in limbo.

In our film, Half Widow, we critically examine the status of the overlooked and beleaguered population of half widows. The story spans several years of the turmoil and angst endured by the people of Kashmir along with the small wins and hopes that keep them alive despite the harsh realities they encounter daily basis. In a place where everyone is a victim, the story of our protagonist begins after tragedy strikes and she can no longer look outside for strength and validation.

Stories like Neela’s need to be told, especially now, when so many people are experiencing loss and displacement in the world. In order to survive, they will need to look within for answers and strive to find meaning in a life that is so filled with sadness. While war and conflict zones are ridden with sorrow, we also find human stories of real courage and valor.

Half Widow gives me the extraordinary opportunity to present Kashmir to a worldwide audience with the unique, powerful voice of a storyteller. My film aims to authentically portray Kashmiri culture, instilling in the viewer the same hope I have for justice and peace in the region.

Film promotional poster courtesy of TSAFF

Omar Vandal, Zakir Thaver and Anand Kamalakar: Salam The First ****** Nobel Laurete

What draws any artist to create something is how the subject speaks to him or her on an emotional level. To me as a documentary filmmaker, it is no different.

When the producers Zakir Thaver and Omar Vandal brought this project to me, they had invested 10 years scouring every aspect of the remarkable life of Abdus Salam. What they had collected was so thorough and expansive, that it was hard to ignore. Their commitment to the project was unrelenting, and that was the first thing that drew me in. When I did my own cursory research on the layered life of Abdus Salam it became instantly clear to me that this was a very important story and it had to be told in the present climate fraught with Islamophobia and other prejudices.

Abdus Salam led a very rich and accomplished life. Apart from being the first Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, he was only among a handful to have accomplished this task from that part of the world. More than his accolades, what drew me to his story, was the tortured life he led – ostracized, forgotten and exiled from his own country, just for his personal beliefs. Another aspect which I found fascinating was how Salam reconciled being a deeply religious man, while operating at the highest reaches of science, whose primary goal in many ways was to render religion and a belief in god obsolete. This dichotomy and paradox, which was peppered through his life, is intimately explored in “Salam” making it a deeply personal and intimate portrait to watch.

Salam was born in pre-partition India and was laid to rest in Pakistan in 1996. I was born and brought up in India but currently call New York home. Zakir and Omar were both born in Pakistan. Omar calls Seattle home and Zakir lives in Karachi. The painful history of our birth nations 70 years on is a constant reminder and the politics surrounding it only worsens. But the camaraderie we have found as collaborators speaks volumes about why this film is what it is. For this reason alone, this project is close to my heart and we hope to share this feeling with the world through the life of “Salam”.

Film promotional poster courtesy of TSAFF

Reema Sengupta: Counterfeit Kunko

Counterfeit Kunkoo is a narrative drama set in Mumbai that speaks about housing discrimination, marital rape and reclaiming one’s sexuality.

In a country where marital rape is not a legal crime, where a woman’s very name is defined by her husband’s name, the fight to live a dignified existence begins at the struggle for separation but is far from over at the separation itself.

Counterfeit Kunkoo has been a very personal journey for me. When my mother, an educated, financially-independent, 45-year-old woman, was told to find herself another house to live in by her husband, she was hurt but still unfazed, and she started house-hunting. Nothing could’ve prepared her for the ordeal that awaited her. She was rejected as a tenant from so many building societies because she wasn’t going to be living with her husband; a husband who had psychologically and physically tortured her for 25 years and then thrown her out on the streets.

Women even in one of the most progressive cities in India, seem to need a husband, no matter how abusive he is, for society to believe they are ‘respectable’. This is only one manifestation of how much of a woman’s identity is judged by her marital status. An entire person reduced to the vermillion (kunkoo) on her forehead and the string of black and gold beads (mangalsutra) around her neck; signs of marriage worn only by the woman, not the man.

Counterfeit Kunkoo is an exploration of the idiosyncrasies that come with the deep-seated misogyny that finds its way into everyday life in India, the battles one must fight, and whether winning or losing those battles matters at all in the first place.

Film still courtesy of TSAFF

Mohammed Naqvi: Insha’Allah Democracy

Growing up as a Shia Muslim minority in Pakistan, I saw members of my family and community being targeted by right-wing Islamist extremists. When my uncle was murdered in the 1990s, my family began hiding in the U.S. for long stretches of time until things calmed down back home. I wanted Pakistan to be a modern democratic state, but I also wanted to feel safe and secure – free to be a kid. When military dictator General Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999, I was a teenager. His rule meant safety and secularism. I saw things change. For me, Musharraf was a hero. I wasn’t going to let the fact that he was a dictator mar that image.

Soon after he resigned and went into exile, Pakistan was plunged into chaos. It was one of the most dangerous times in our country’s history. The democratically elected government that followed him proved woefully incompetent to deal with some of our most pressing issues, including terrorism and security. So when it became known that the former military ruler was running for election, it was impossible to ignore. All other candidates lacked any firm stance on the growing religious extremist element. As far as I was concerned, they were giving voice to an ultra-orthodox, bigoted version of Islam – a version that cast me, a minority and a liberal, as unworthy of protection. Supporting Musharraf was only natural.

But then I spent four years with him and got to know him personally. I witnessed major turning points as he campaigned in the lead up to the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in our country’s history. When troubling news reports surfaced, he confessed to me his own role of covertly supporting militancy as a means of fighting a proxy war with our enemies. I realized that he didn’t think he owed his people the truth. Despite his liberal and secular outlook, he was a dictator at heart – a dangerous flaw in a leader.

My eventual realization could not have been possible without the unique position I was in. I got to vet candidates up close, well beyond the scope of any news coverage. I spent one-on-one time with them and got to know them personally.

One lesson I learned in making Insha’Allah Democracy directly echoes the recent global shift that has dramatically come to the forefront in events of the last few months. The election of a U.S. president espousing a strongly nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda took the world by surprise. All over the world, there seems to be a wave of nationalist and xenophobic elements coming to power. And that, too, through the democratic process. Many people’s faith in democracy itself has been shaken. But what I’ve learned through making Insha’Allah Democracy is that participation in the democratic process is critical to reforming it.

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